Archive for May, 2013

Automating Rotating Complexity

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

helicopterHelicopters—we’ve all heard the pejorative descriptions: Thousands of parts flying in loose formation. It’s good that it’s leaking—we still have hydraulic fluid. Flying helicopters is like juggling three $150 champagne bottles…it’s not a case of if you drop them, but rather how many, etc.

But they’ve always fascinated me for a variety of reasons—not the least of which is the tremendous jobs they do in tough situations—things a fixed-wing aircraft simply can’t. What might be a difficult and tremendously useful situation? How about landing on oil platforms, which is how much of the world’s petroleum workers get to their job so we can get to ours.

So it was of some interest when Sikorsky Aircraft announced that it had recently certified a new system that claims to reduce pilot workload by 60 percent in the critical approach phase to a platform. This technological feat was done in conjunction with PHI, which is one of the largest civilian helicopter operations.

According to the Sikorsky press release, “Rig Approach will be available as an option on the S-92 helicopters, providing a fully coupled and automated approach capability with a higher safety margin than currently is available with any other offshore approach procedure. The feature can be retrofitted to aircraft already operating.”

To the staid universe of fixed-wing operations this seems like old news—an autopilot function that guides one to touch down better than a human. But the complexity of helicopters hasn’t allowed this to be done before. It also tells me that the microprocessor firepower of today’s avionics is allowing us to do unimaginable things with hardware that once required a highly skilled and trained human.

The airlines have long been advocates of autopilots, and while we’ve discussed the occasional miscue, they do provide a consistency of operation that humans can’t. Automation, however, cannot always manage the outlier events that can have catastrophic consequences. This leads to an interesting discussion on how much the human should be “in the loop” of operating the machines. After all, we are generally lousy monitors for long periods of time—it’s the attention span thing. But we can be highly effective for limited periods to manage those unusual events provided the critical-event skills have not atrophied. If we get too mentally disengaged however, it’s hard to get back in the game—and therein lay the difficulty.

As super-automated flight control equipment becomes more commonplace, it falls on us to define the hows and wherefores to maintain those old skills while developing new ones.

terrafugiaWhat will they think of next? Glad you asked!  Just announced—the Terrafugia TF-X is a tilt rotor car that will automatically takeoff and land in your driveway! But you only need your checkbook now to invest for venture capital purposes—the real deal is projected to take 8-10 years to arrive at a driveway near you.

Congratulations to Sikorsky, PHI, and the FAA on an end of the beginning of a new era. But it is only the beginning.